A willowy princess of the old-money Upper East Side must confront a 10-year-old boy who claims to be her dead husband in Birth, which itself inhabits a liminal visual space between here and the great beyond. “We wanted the interiors to be like an anteroom to the afterlife, to have that stillness and tension,” says British director Jonathan Glazer of his second feature. Glazer worked with Elephant cinematographer Harris Savides, who conjured a dusky ghost world of candlelit apparitions, granular light, and tactile shadows.
“I was trying for a claustrophobic formality,” adds Glazer, “an austere ivory tower she wants to escape from, a constant state of waiting and longing”—an ambience that evokes Rosemary’s Baby, especially when you factor in Nicole Kidman’s Farrow-esque croptop. Constantly retooling the script throughout production, Glazer kept three different touchstones in mind: Rashomon for its epistemic quandaries, The Shining for its earthbound consideration of the paranormal, and Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. “It never becomes anything other than watching a woman’s total conviction that she’s heard the voice of God,” Glazer explains of the latter, “and it’s only Falconetti’s face that pulls you in and makes you think she might be telling the truth.”
Glazer pays bravura homage to Dreyer in a wordless three-minute-long close-up of Kidman at the opera listening to Wagner—a thrilling master class in subliminal performance. “The whole idea of the film is absurd, it’s laughable,” Glazer declares merrily, “and I wanted to take her and the audience all the way with it, into believing that this boy was who he said he was. It’s really the first time in the film that we’re alone with her, and all the prior events are rolled into this one shot as she mulls it over, as we do. We can watch her open these little doors in her mind—these newly unlocked memories that start playing across her face.”
A music video and commercial virtuoso, Glazer completed his first feature, the lithe, balmy gangster flick Sexy Beast (2000), for Britain’s now deflated indie FilmFour; Birth marks his debutante dance with an American studio (Fine Line). How did the transition go? “It’s like being hit in the back of the head with a bat,” Glazer states bluntly, though he declines to elaborate much further. “I had to fight. The stakes were higher this time because Nicole was involved for a start, but you also realize that Hollywood isn’t that interesting—there’s a race to come second. I want to make something that I haven’t seen.”